At the very beginning of the “Cannabis 2.0” panel at the 2019 Billboard Live Music Summit on Tuesday (Nov. 5) at Beverly Hills’ Montage hotel, moderator and Billboard senior editor for industry news Colin Stutz brought up “the elephant in the room”: the spate of vaping-related illnesses and deaths, the majority of which involved THC products, that have cropped up across the country over the past several weeks and months.
The panelists onstage were clear and firm in their assessments: that in the testing of the products that caused such health problems, the legal, regulated vaping products were proven safe to use and those that were not had produced devastating effects.
“The problems are in the black market,” said Mario Guzman, founder of cannabis brand Sherbinskis. “Everything that came out of the legal market was passing [testing].”
Guzman was one of five panelists onstage addressing the rising legal cannabis industry and its relationship with the live events business. Joining him were Double Barrel chief brand officer Ann Skalski; Cura Partners / Select vp marketing Jenn Wong; Sonia Hendrix, founder/CEO of Gallery PR; and Gopi Sangha, a longtime Goldenvoice veteran who founded the experiential agency CUSP.
Each of the panelists stressed that the legal market is the best way to keep the public safe — and that much of their jobs involve education, branding and marketing as much as anything else. “Safe access is public safety,” said Skalski. “If the consumer isn’t getting the very best, then I’m not doing my job.” Hendrix noted that of the brands that were tested, three-quarters of those from illicit markets included pesticides, and said that the “important thing is to not scare the public” and push them toward legal products. Added Wong, “All of us are working very hard to normalize the experience of cannabis.”
The introduction of cannabis at live events is still a relatively new industry and, as such, there are many different factors that determine how it can be best utilized in terms of branding, sponsorships and retail. Sangha, whose company has worked with several events that have included cannabis to varying degrees, stressed the importance of promoters planning, evaluating how much they want it to be incorporated into their event and whether such an event will go conservative (nothing at all), slightly conservative (such as including CBD products) or to the most extreme (on-site consumption and retail).
But all of it requires advanced warning, careful planning and coordination with regulators and authorities to make sure all stakeholders are comfortable and general due diligence. “Consumption on-site is possible in recreational states, as Outside Lands showed,” he said, referencing the popular Bay Area festival’s “Grass Lands” section in 2018. “Once we get to a comfort level, we should be treating this no different than alcohol.”
That due diligence for promoters and events also includes making sure that the brands, distributors and financiers are aligned in what they stand for. “Make sure that that cannabis company is also a responsible partner,” stressed Wong.
But if due diligence is done and values are aligned, there’s a big opportunity in involving cannabis with live events. Wong said that “experiential marketing is the future,” saying that cannabis consumers don’t care about influencers shilling for products they don’t use so much as the type of marketing that meets customers where they are, while Sangha said that if promoters show cannabis brands that their products will be important to an event, they could get a six-figure deal. “You can’t just assume people will cut you a big check,” he said. “You have to give value to get value.”
But there are some artists whose involvement in cannabis companies goes beyond the surface or influencer level and can help bring a level of authenticity to a brand or its products — though local brands carried in local dispensaries are often more important to consumers. Guzman spoke about getting his start as a grower nearly two decades ago before teaming up with rapper Berner to create the now-famous gelato strain, though he generally eschews big-name artist branding. In those early days, Guzman said, “We created the modern-day medicine cabinet.”
Still, challenges in the industry remain, largely because of the fractured nature of regional legalization. But there’s a lot of opportunity too. “There’s not a lot of glory in it. You have to find the glory in it,” said Skalski, before adding, “I never want to get away from it.”